When The Young Turks celebrated the 10th anniversary of its livestream this month with 10 hours of livestreaming, it was a feat that, in 2015, seems much more plausible than the online plunge The Young Turks host and founder Cenk Uygur took a decade ago on Dec. 12, 2005.
YouTube, if you recall, had just been created that year, and it was only in November of 2005 that it was made available to the public, two months before Uygur decided to put online what had at that point been a radio show.
“I was a big believer in it from day one,” says Uygur of web-based video content. “Back in 1998 I wrote an email to my friends saying online video was going to eventually take over and one day be bigger than TV.”
Uygur saw the future, but that future was not quite there. The audience for The Young Turks’ first livestream was just 25 people. During the course of the next decade, that dauntingly small number grew to a current YouTube subscriber base of over 2.45 million, with TYT amassing over 2.3 billion YouTube lifetime views along the way.
“We learned,” is how Uygur explains that growth. “Part of the answer,” he continues, “is not having such a large ego so that you’re wedded to one strategy. We were doing A/B testing before people even called it A/B testing.” As an example, he cites the early system for naming episodes, one that makes sense for a television network’s internal categorization methods, but not so much online:
We’d have terrible [titles] like Young Turks Hour 1 Episode 7, and nobody knew what that was so they wouldn’t click on it. And then we decided, hey wait, let’s make it shorter, let’s break it down topic by topic. And we’d put a title on it like, Bush’s Goofy Speech About…you name it. People were more likely to click on it and so we kept running.”
There were other changes throughout the years, among them, eight or so set upgrades, and the removal of conventions that were holdovers from the days TYT ran concurrent radio and livestream shows. Most notably, they dropped interviews from the format, a decision Uygur made to avoid the presence of “talking heads.”
What didn’t change, according to Uygur, is The Young Turks’ point of view: unapologetically progressive, intentionally commenting from the left, instead of an impossibly, artificially neutral center–the infamous View from Nowhere. “That’s why we named it The Young Turks, because that’s what we intended to be: young progressives looking to overthrow the established system, both in media and in government,” says Uygur.
“We thought the media was neutral when they should have been objective,” he says, pointing to one of the better examples of a contemporary media morality play, the press coverage leading up to the United States’ military invasion of Iraq–2003 edition. “They were neutral to the facts, like for example, that Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11. You can’t call that even. You can’t say Republicans say this and Democrats say that.”
Uygur likes to talk about how TYT’s style of delivering news and commentary hits a nerve with its audience. “It’s as simple as talking like real human beings. That’s apparently a revolution,” says Uygur. But it extends past how TYT talks to its audience, to how it interacts with its audience.
“We have the largest focus group in the world because we have 1400 comments per video on YouTube,” says Uygur. “They’ve become our editors at large in helping us do a better show. Sometimes they even literally convince me of a different position on an issue. Overall, it’s to keep us honest and make sure that we’re reporting a story as accurately as we possibly can, in a way that is authentic.”
It’s that authenticity that Uygur points to as partial explanation for the show’s enviable engagement levels. “I hate to tell them the magic trick is build a real show over ten years. If you don’t do that, well, you’re not going to have engagement like we do.”
Another component Uygur points to is connecting with TYT’s audience in the depths of the comments section. “If you interact with your audience, and they know that you care, and they have a sense that you’re at least reading their comments to some degree, then they want to interact with you.”
TYT’s audience will play an important role in its current expansion plan in the form of TYT Next, its hosting talent search. “We’re finding our next level of hosts from the audience itself,” says Uygur.
“I would much rather get our next talent, or our next twelve great starts, from the audience than from the robots on TV, so we’ve opened it up and we think we’re going to create an assembly line of talent that’s going to be home grown,” he says. “And if we do that, that’s going to be a lead that’s so insurmountable it’s going to depress people.”